CHICAGO (WLS) — Francis Eugene Cardinal George, Archbishop Emeritus of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, died today after a long battle with cancer. He was 78.
The first Archbishop of Chicago to actually come from Chicago, Cardinal George was born on January 16, 1937 and grew up in St. Pascal’s parish on the city’s Northwest Side. He survived polio at the age of 13. He didn’t attend seminary in Chicago. Instead, he attended St. Henry Preparatory Seminary in Belleville, Illinois, then decided to join a Catholic religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in August of 1957. He studied theology in Ottawa, Canada and was ordained a priest at St. Pascal’s Church on December 21, 1963.
“I never thought I would be the Archbishop or a Bishop at all, because when I was ordained, there were no Bishops from religious orders, so I never thought of that as a possibility at all. I thought I’d probably serve men who would serve the poor,” Cardinal George told Eyewitness News Anchor Alan Krashesky in 2013.
But in May of 1997, he was installed as the eighth Archbishop of Chicago. Pope John Paul II had previously appointed him Bishop of Yakima, Washington in 1990 and Archbishop of Portland in 1996. In January of 1998, Pope John Paul II announced Archbishop George’s elevation to the College of Cardinals. At the Consistory in Rome that February, he was assigned San Bartolomeo all’Isola in Rome as his titular church.
Cardinal George became a Roman Catholic leader both internationally and here in the United States. From 2007 to 2010, he was President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, after serving as Vice-President from 2004-2007.
Cardinal George’s style in Chicago was one of a teacher, who could weave into conversation a point from the Council of Trent in the 1500s. But he was also regarded as a pastor who was greatly concerned about defending the church and what he saw as secular influence and government interference.
Asked by Eyewitness News anchor Alan Krashesky, if there was anything he wanted to do-over, the Cardinal replied it would be the response to the sexual abuse crisis, including the case of now former priest Daniel McCormack – who abused children after the Chicago Archdiocese said it took steps to prevent that very crime.
“Your mistakes haunt you, sometimes,” Cardinal George told Krashesky in 2013. “I wish this hadn’t happened, wish that hadn’t happened and I hope I’ve learned from them,” he continued.
Yet, even as his successor was taking the helm of the Chicago Archdiocese, Archbishop Blase Cupich made sure the Cardinal Received credit for laying the foundation against clerical sexual abuse.
“We would not have had zero tolerance when it comes to child protection, if it were not for this man here,” said Archbishop Cupich at his appointment announcement, referring to Cardinal George. “He was the one who made it happen,” he continued.
Cardinal George was initially diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2006. In 2012, cancer returned to his kidney and liver. After showing signs of progress, the cancer returned more aggressively in the spring of 2014. Cardinal George even tried experimental cancer therapy when traditional chemotherapy didn’t do the job, however that experimental therapy was not successful.
Cardinal George’s wish for retirement became reality on November 18, 2014. He became the first Archbishop of Chicago not to die while serving as leader of the Archdiocese and he had the historic opportunity to collaborate with his successor. The Cardinal hoped to serve as a mentor, passing along his knowledge and the reasoning behind more than 17 years of decisions.
At Archbishop Cupich’s installation mass, the new Archbishop thanked Cardinal George, saying, “How deeply grateful we are for your leadership, your witness to the gospel, and the pride you have brought to the city and the Archdiocese!”
In his last mass celebrated as Archbishop, Cardinal George spoke about what he hoped would be his legacy. “In short, you are my legacy,” he told those gathered in the pews of Holy Name Cathedral. “The people of the Archdiocese are what I will point to when the Lord asks me, ‘what have you done with my gift to you?'”